Culture minister Julijana Bizjak Mlakar (DeSUS) is about to get the can. PM Cerar said so (although not in as many words) when he asked her to resign no later than noon yesterday lest he initiates demission procedures. And since Bizjak Mlakar told the PM to go fuck himself (not in as many words, either), the scene is set for yet another ruffling of the proverbial feathers in full view of the public.
Julijana Bizjak Mlakar (source: The Firm™)
All things being equal, the government would be in a state of mid-level panic right now. Bizjak Mlakar is a part of the DeSUS contingent of ministers and Karl Erjavec, leader of the second-to-senior coalition party as a rule doesn’t look kindly on his people being treated this way. At the very least, he’d threaten to walk out of the coalition and get a raise in pensions out of it. You know, just to stay on the good side of his core constituency. That nothing of the kind is taking place, is speaking volumes.
A shit job if there ever was one
You see, culture is a shit portfolio to run. At least in Slovenia, where people working in culture industry are a-dime-a-dozen and that’s excluding the media, archives, religion and heritage, all of which fall under the purview of the said ministry. In fact, back in the day then-minister of culture Sergij Pelhan was even slapped by a hot-blooded director Vinci Anžlovar over some financing disagreement. So on one hand you’ve got all of these people telling you how to do your job and on the other a lot of brainiacs who scoff at culture and creative industries in general as a waste pf taxpayer’s money. Unless, of course, they can claim a tax deduction. Despite evidence that investment in culture industries can create as much as four-fold return.
Anyhoo, it is against this climate that the individual at the helm of the ministry at any given time must fight for a slice of the country’s EUR 9.5 billion budget. Currently, that’s EUR 146 million, of which 50 million is spent on maintaining heritage sites and 85 million on financing various programmes. And when the going gets tough (as it tends to do in this day and age) the ministry of culture is among the first ones getting squeezed.
Pengovsky told you it’s a shit job. And yet, Julijana Bizjak Mlakar was (technically still is) spectacularly inept at doing it.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was management and financing of restoration of the Idrija Mercury Mine, a UNESCO heritage site. The nuts and bolts of it a rather boring and not really pertinent for the entire picture, so suffice it to say that the whole project requires the cooperation of many state, local and non-government players. (link in Slovene). But this Idrija Mercury Mine thing, where Bizjak Mlakar obstinately refused to execute a decision by the government charging her ministry to attend to the urgent situation is only the latest in a series of gaffes and misfires that have plagued the department almost from the day she took it over.
Media law fiasco
Chief among these was the media law fiasco, which started last summer and ended a month or so ago. Back then the already embattled minister proposed to amend the existing media law which (this needs to be said) is hopelessly outdated, does not address the situation in the industry nor does it tackle the issues with which both content producers and content consumers are faced with on a daily basis. But the first draft law was so poorly done that not only did it not address the pressing issues of the industry, it even fucked up those tiny bits that sort of worked. Like the quota system for Slovenian music. As a result, the draft has had such a hostile reception (pengovsky included) that it was withdrawn, completely revamped and tabled again. The redux fared only slightly better, however (both links in Slovene). In the end, the watered-down provisions were passed but only after the national radio received assurances by the SMC that an additional amendment will be passed soon, providing for some leeway regarding the new and harsher quota system. And lo-behold, within weeks, the ministry of culture launches a series of public debates aimed at creating a strategy for developing and regulating the media sector.
That’s right: after it had already spent a considerable amount of energy and political capital (of which it had precious little to begin with) at shoving an amended media law down everyone’s throat, they went about putting together a media sector strategy. Aren’t these things usually done the other way around? Anyway, the point is that things are a bit chaotic over there. Which is why state secretary (minister’s second-in-command and chief operative) Tone Peršak, himself an accomplished writer and a former mayor of Trzin, was on the verge of quitting his post, reportedly citing impossibility to work with Bizjak Mlakar.
So how was it that a person who is uniquely ill-suited for the post end up handling the culture portfolio? Well, the way her party boss Karl Erjavec threw her under the bus may provide a hint or two. You see, Bizjak Mlakar was elected to parliament in 2014 which was somewhat of a surprise even for the party insiders and her maverick attitude was not exactly what DeSUS’ big kahunas had in mind for the party’s parliamentary group. So she was “promoted” to minister of culture where she could do the least damage. Or so the party leadership thought. The actual result was more akin to a slow-moving traffic accident, where the onlookers couldn’t really believe what we were seeing but couldn’t avert our eyes, either. Case in point being the issue of financing of KSEVT (Cultural Centre of Space Technologies), where the ministry demanded that the museum returned some wrongly attributed funds. The manager Miha Turšič refused, claiming everything was in order and although a subsequent audit proved ministry of culture right, Bizjak Mlakar handling of the issue only escalated tensions with Turšič at one point embarking on a lengthy hunger-strike.
Going down in flames
To put it succinctly, the politics of Julijana Bizjak Mlakar are grief no one really needs. And rather than adjusting the tone and the pace (if not the course) of her actions, she keeps doubling-down on her positions, surrounds herself with yes-men and dubious PR specialists, as if she wanted to go down in flames.
And so she will. The problem (for DeSUS and potentially for PM Cerar, too) is that she will land right back in the parliament and oust her replacement Jana Jenko. And since DeSUS parliamentary group is expected to support demission of Bizjak Mlakar, she would then have to work with the very same people who helped shoot her down. Rather awkward.
One way out of this conundrum is that Bizjak Mlakar forefits her MP seat and exits top-tier politics completely. This would be the preffered outcome for both Erjavec and Cerar, as the former would keep his parliamentary group intact while the latter would – by extention – get to keep his parliamentary majority of 52 votes intact.
The more probable outcome, however, is that the soon-to-be-ex minister of culture returns to the parliament as an MP and declares herself independent. After all, the MP’s monthly salary is nothing to scoff at. Apart from the opposition, this scenarion would probably be welcomed by the most junior of coalition partners, the Social Democrats who, incidentally, used to be Bizjak Mlakar’s former political home. Namely, with an independend Bizjak Mlakar, the SMC and DeSUS could only muster 45 votes in the parliament, a vote short of the absolute majority. With this, the SD would suddenly become a relevant coalition member once again and could again run the table against the coalition parties more aggressively.
A week is a very long time
So, while the case of Julijana Bizjak Mlakar at first glance seems like the Prime Minister is simply getting rid of some dead weight, a closer look uncovers a much more delicate picture. The MPs are expected to debate and vote on Bizjak Mlakar’s demission in begnning of May. That’s almost three weeks from now. And in politics, a week is a very long time.
2 thoughts on “Axing Minister Of Culture Threatens To Disrupt Coalition Balance Of Power”
Obviously, she didn’t go quietly. According to the STA via Slovenia Times on April 25, 2016:
The minister, who refused to implement the decree regarding the Idrija mine, arguing that it was the purview of the economy portfolio, meanwhile stressed that Cerar’s statements were untrue. “For over a year I tried in vain to tackle the issue in the mine for the good of the people with you and other relevant ministers.”
According to her, she proposed that the liquidation of the mine be stopped, but neither Cerar nor Finance Minister Dušan Mramor wanted to hear anything about it. Should the liquidation happen, “it will mean general danger for the lives of Idrija inhabitants and their property, which is a criminal act”.
Going on, Bizjak Mlakar said that the prime minister was bending the knee to lobbies, who “apparently even have the power to dismiss ministers who endanger their financial interests”.
“I do not see myself in the government that works in the interest of lobbies and the wealthiest and on the other hand neglects legality and morality,” she added before handing in her resignation.
Disregarding the issue of the minister’s competence or lack of it, is there a story to be told or any basis for her accusations of involvement by “lobbies and the wealthiest”? If so, who are they and what do they want? Does “liquidation of the mine” mean flooding the unused shafts with water or selling off properties or assets belonging to the mine (which I assume would mean government-owned real estate)? While the former action could possibly turn Idrija into a giant sinkhole, if it’s the latter, how would a sell-off of real estate pose a “general danger for the lives of Idrija inhabitants and their property”?
It’s all too easy—although possibly accurate in general—to make claims of ex-Communist-nouveau-riche politicians and directors ripping off the citizens in every corner of the country because they’ll be long dead or gone by the time the police and courts get anywhere near finding (forget retrieving!) the money in Panama or Cyprus or wherever, but has the now-former minister named any names or pointed out any specific benefits that the “lobbies and the “wealthiest” have or will have gained from whatever “liquidation” takes place?
I’d like to hope that Mladina (left?) and Reporter (right?) are both following such stories and that progress toward the rule of law and diminishing inequality is being made, but as far as I know, you, Pengovsky, are the only source in English of occasional tantalizing updates (hopefully objective) on the “real” situation. With this in mind, please consider writing your column more often and/or listing any alternative English-language sources your loyal readers could turn to.
Fair point on me slacking. I apologize and will try to make amends. And, yes, I’ll try to dig up additional links in English.
As for JMB herself, she obviously wasn’t naming names. The whole thing really is just a showcase for Dunning-Krueger Effect.
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